by DAVID AXE
In October of last year, a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, strolled into the village of Baraki Rajan, 50 miles south of Kabul. The soldiers, deployed from upstate New York since January, held their rifles loosely, muzzles pointed down, deliberately not aiming at anyone. That was meant as a signal — a signal that the residents had, over time, learned to read.
Afghans crowded around. The men, that is. As usual, women and girls remained inside, out of sight. The soldiers bumped fists with the boys and shook hands with the men and mangled the snippets of Arabic and Dari they’d picked up. Through an interpreter, Sean Mahard, the platoon’s lieutenant, asked some men where he could find the local mullah. Standing quietly behind the lieutenant, a sergeant glanced at a handheld GPS receiver, correlating every one of the lieutenant’s conversations with a 10-digit map coordinate.
Mahard, a fair-skinned 24-year-old from Connecticut, found mullah Bismollo standing in the shade of one of the village’s two mosques. “Salaam alaikum,” Mahard said, using the traditional Muslim greeting and pronouncing it quite well. He offered a hand to the stooped, weathered 72-year-old Bismollo, who like many Afghans goes by just one name.
Mahard asked Bismollo if Baraki Rajan had received the supplies the Army had made available for refurbishing the mosque: rugs, paint, a new loudspeaker for broadcasting the calls to prayer.
No, Bismollo said. The village’s other mosque had been hoarding the supplies and refusing to share, he said. Mahard’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He scribbled furiously in his green, Army-issue notebook and promised to look into the problem. “Thank you for speaking to me,” he said. “We’ll come back in a week.”
Before leaving, Mahard had a soldier snap photos of Bismollo and another village elder. The photos would wind up printed on the military’s symbol-laden maps of the area and on charts depicting the leadership structure of Baraki Rajan.
Walking out of town, Mahard mused on his conversation: “This is one of the intricacies you have to overcome — internal feuds in villages, when one group holds the mosque kits as leverage over the other.” He smiled, showing bright white teeth on a clean-shaven, youthful face. “It gives you insight,” he said.
Mahard’s mission to Baraki Rajan sure didn’t look like war — at least not like Hollywood depicts it. No one ran. No one shouted. Nothing exploded. No helicopters swooped majestically overhead. The mission boiled down to a long walk through a quiet village, a few conversations with local residents, a lot of jotted notes and figures and some photos.
In the two weeks I spent with 3rd Squadron, these “assessment” patrols accounted for the majority of U.S. operations. In Baraki Barak district, gunfights were so rare that some soldiers actually said they missed them. The single, 20-minute firefight I observed was a favorite discussion topic for days.
Eight years into the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan, American troops are focusing less on killing insurgents and extremists, and more on isolating them from the local populace — in effect, flushing them out and starving them into submission, often without ever firing a shot.
It’s a strategy that hinges on a detailed understanding of how overlapping Afghan communities work: who’s in charge where, what villages are in need of what resources, how disagreements create schisms between neighbors, rival mosques and entire villages. The idea is to make key interest groups into allies, swaying whole communities to the U.S. camp and convincing them to turn in or simply kill bad actors in their midst.
The military has a name for the mix of needs, motives and rivalries that shape the complex daily interactions of thousands of people at the village and district level: the “human terrain.” Mapping and exploiting this terrain is the daily work of soldiers like Mahard and the rest of 3rd Squadron, as well as other units all over Afghanistan.
But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time, just a couple of years ago, when the Army moved to entrust human-terrain mapping exclusively to special teams composed of civilian academics, with a few State Department foreign service officers and retired soldiers also mixed in. The teams got their start in Afghanistan, shifted to Iraq for several years then shifted back to Afghanistan once the Iraq war started winding down.
Depending on whom you ask, the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System is in the process of either transforming the U.S. military or being rejected by it. The original versions of the so-called “Human Terrain Teams” — the basic units of the Human Terrain System — are now slowly going defunct. From one point of view, they have been rendered redundant, as the philosophy and practices they espoused spread throughout the military mainstream. But seen from another direction, the Human Terrain System is on the cusp of a much-deserved breakthrough into the military mainstream, and, after a rocky start, the social-science teams are primed for a speedy rise up the military hierarchy.
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